I’ve always considered myself easily scared. My horror of horror began with an ill-advised viewing of The Amityville Horror when I was around eight or nine years old. My brother thought it was very important that I know that this was based on a true story, and I believed him—and didn’t sleep properly for quite a long time. By the time my Amityville-related fears passed, insomnia and night fears had become an ingrained habit—and so had horror films. I grew up during the hey-day of the 1980s slasher films, and I saw lots of them. (My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Halloween and its sequels, and the Friday the 13th films all stand out in my memory.) And they kept me good and scared.
For some reason, though, I hardly ever read scary books as a preteen or teenager. I did read a couple of early Christopher Pike books and some of Lois Duncan’s , but I was too old for R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books when they came along. I also didn’t get into Stephen King (although I watched lots of film adaptations of his books—Cujo, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn). I suppose I had a sense that scary books for adults would be way too scary for my younger self. By the time I started reading scary books, long after I graduated college, I had become a person who is less easily scared than I used to be.
Still, there are some books that have grabbed at me and given me chills. Sometimes the chills come from a scary moment in an otherwise non-scary book, sometimes the chills come from the idea behind the events of the book, and sometimes the chills are more visceral, more about the gross-out moment than actual fear. These are a few of the chill-inducing books that come to mind. I liked some of these more than others, but all of them included moments that shook me up:
- The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. For the most part, I don’t find this book scary, but the scene in the mines of Moria is absolutely terrifying.
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The random murder described in this book is particularly frightening because the Clutter family had done nothing to know the murderers into their lives.
- Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace. The descriptions of the bodies in this book horrified me. The idea that someone would do that—just so, so awful.
- Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. There’s a scene in which a spirit takes control of the main character’s girlfriend that I found extraordinarily upsetting, so much so that I nearly didn’t finish the book. Plus, the situation kept getting more and more inescapable, and the tension was nearly too much for me.
- Misery by Stephen King. A lot of the scariness of this book comes in the combination of gross-out moments and the inescapability of the situation.
- The Hot Zone by Robert Preston. It’s one thing to read about a fake virus unleashed in the world (as in The Stand), but it’s a whole other thing to learn how easy it would be for a devastating virus to escape into the world.
- The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. In this book, it’s the idea behind the story that terrifies. Women are so often told what they’re supposed to be, and Levin takes that reality to literal extremes.
- The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. This is another book in which the situation is scary, even if the book itself is not. I found the thought of deciding that certain people were dispensable to be chilling.
So are you easily frightened by what you read? What books have terrified you?
Notes from a Reading Life
- Paradise Lost by John Milton (church book club)
- Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan (audio)
- A Void by Georges Perec
- The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton. Review copy from author.
- The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. Review copy from Harper Books.
- The Radleys by Matt Haig. Review copy from Simon and Schuster.